Introduction: what is TAPIF?

The Teaching Assistant Program in France (TAPIF) is a government initiative that places applicants in French public schools as ESL (English Second-Language) teaching assistants. As an American organization, TAPIF works directly with the Ministère de l’Éducation nationale (Department of Education) in France to select the best applicants and to assign them to the appropriate elementary or high school, taking into consideration the French public school system’s needs and the wishes of the individual applicant. Though TAPIF is responsable for the initial selection process, all teaching assistants are employees of the French Government and are given a corresponding contract with a fixed beginning and end date, along with all the necessary legal documents to allow them entry into the European Union.

What’s the job description?
As an assistant de langue, or teaching assistant, you don’t have the full rights of a normal teacher in France. This means that you don’t plan the students’ curriculum and you most likely won’t lead a full class by yourself. This isn’t just a matter of qualification, but also of time. The contract only allows assistants to teach a maximum of 12 hours per week, all of which is spent in the classroom, so there’s not really time for anything beyond in-class instruction. In my experience, what’s expected of all teaching assistants, at both the elementary and high school levels, is to lead either a smaller class (a handful of students) on your own or to assist the main teacher with the full class. Either way, teaching assistants are expected to do some lesson planning, preferably centered around their native culture. In any case, the goal is to lead a more conversation-based class, where students are encouraged to speak as much as possible, so assistants are discouraged from focusing on grammar, phonetics, etc.

How long is the contract?
Teaching assistants arrive in France near the end of September and their contracts officially go into effect on October 1st. Within the first few days of employment, assistants are required to attend some form of orientation to explain their general responsibilities and introduce how the program functions. The contract terminates about 7 months later, at the end of April, so assistants don’t actually teach for the entire academic year.

What are the benefits?
Besides having the distinct opportunity to experience French language and culture first-hand, teaching assistants are provided with health insurance from the government, given about 6 weeks of paid vacation, and are eligible for a French housing grant, amongst other things. Of course, a 12-hour work week is a pretty nice perk too.

What’s the application process like?
I’m sure that the application changes slightly from year to year, but it was very straightforward in my experience. Once you begin the application on, there are a number of steps that have to be completed before submission. Besides providing personal information, the most important (and most time-consuming) of these steps would be obtaining the required letters of recommendation and completing your personal letter of motivation (written in French). Since the letters of recommendation have to be written by college professors and professional contacts, it’s important to give yourself plenty of time to compile the required documents. Typically, the application becomes available in early October and the deadline falls in mid-January. TAPIF then contacts applicants with their decision in late-April and assigns them to a French school sometime in June.

How does the visa process work?
As compared to others reasons for obtaining a work visa, TAPIF makes the process remarkably easy. Like any visa request, applicants have to make an appointment with an agency known as VFS Global, which processes visa requests before sending them to the regional French Consulate. For me, this meant going to Chicago. Once an applicant has been “hired” by TAPIF, the French government will send an arrêté de nomination, which is basically a document that shows proof of employment in France. This letter must be taken to the visa appointment with the other necessary documents and once you are approved, your passport is mailed back to you with the included visa. What’s particularly nice here is that TAPIF absorbs the cost of the work visa (about $100), so all the applicant pays is the processing fee, which is about $40.

Anything else to expect?
Very, very slow and intermittent communication. TAPIF administration is generally pretty quick to answer any questions, but you have to remember that you’re also working with the French government, which is notoriously bureaucratic and snail-paced. Even if applicants receive their school assignments by June without delay, it’s not uncommon for their individual schools to take weeks to send them the necessary letter of employment or to even respond to their messages. It all depends on the school district and the school itself. As you’ll discover in the following articles, patience is not only a virtue, but truly key to being a successful (and even sane) teaching assistant in France.